Anger and partner narcissism: Betty and Jason
Betty and Jason had been married for 5 years and were now being seen in couples therapy because of almost constant conflict. Jason saw the problem as “Betty’s anger” which he couldn’t cope with and caused him to completely emotionally shut down. He constantly threatened divorce lamenting that he wished he had married a “sweet” girl. Betty said her anger was only because of him; she had many friends and no history of anger problems in any other relationship or areas of her life. But, she indeed was enraged with her husband who constantly berated and criticized her, tried to lower her self-esteem, could not satisfy her most basic needs as a woman, and constantly manipulated her by giving her hope for change and then completely reversing himself the next day. She called it “crazy-making.”
What is a narcissist?
Simply put, a narcissist (75% are male) is usually self-absorbed and preoccupied with a need to achieve the perfect image and have little or no capacity for listening, caring or understanding the needs of others. That is, they lack empathy. Wives of narcissists complain that their husbands are emotionally unavailable leaving them feeling lonely and deprived. Therapists who treat them see them as having variations of the narcissistic trait: they may be bullies; they may be show-offs; they may be an addictive self-soother (into alcohol, drugs, internet porn); they may present themselves as “the entitled one.” They are often easily offended by even mild “push-back” from their partners. Often, they are extremely defensive and spend an inordinate amount of energy just protecting their fragile ego.
How does narcissistic behavior affect their partner?
As they say, it takes two to tango. Almost no one can push people’s buttons like the narcissist can. No place is this more true than in the interaction of a narcissist and their partner. Narcissists have an uncanny ability to activate certain “schemas” or belief systems in your brain which you may be unaware of but still greatly influence you and how you react. For instance, you may have a schema of abandonment because of early issues with attachment (or lack thereof) with your primary caretaker as a child. Because you are so fearful of being rejected or alone, you will put up with the limitations and tormenting behaviors of your narcissist.
There are many other such schemas that may be “hard-wired” into your thinking. See “resources” at the end of this blog to learn more and gain understanding into why you may find yourself locked into a dysfunctional and maybe destructive relationship with narcissist even though you realize it is toxic.
Should you fight for your relationship with a narcissist or throw in the towel?
There are certain circumstances where an intimate relationship with a narcissist isn’t worth fighting for, especially if they are a threat to your (or your children’s) security, safety and stability. This is an issue of “discernment” –please see latest blog for discernment guidelines to help you gain clarity regarding the future of your marriage with a narcissistic partner. Or, see a discernment therapist in your local area.
How to deal with your narcissist if you decide to tough it out:
- Your main weapon in dealing with a narcissist is something called “confrontational empathy”. This is close to something called “tough love” that you might use with your adolescent.
- After your schemas get triggered, you may feel speechless and at the end of your rope. You may feel powerless, raw and just plain fatigued in trying to cope with him. But, you have to find a way to communicate with him to save your sanity. The key is “empathic communication-get inside his head.”
Note: DO NOT use this approach of empathy If you feel unsafe or abused; in that case, protect yourself and do not try to be empathetic.
Empathy is not simply compassion; it is communicating that you see things from the narcissist’s point of view, even though you may not agree with it. Remember that rather than tuning in to others, the narcissist remains caught up in the pursuit of approval. His focus is “all about me”, without caring much about you or others.
He is thinking to himself: “How am I doing? She really likes me. I think I nailed it. I think I impressed him. I wonder if they like what I just said. I’ll show them.” This “all about me” focus prevents the narcissist from truly engaging in interactions. He leaves you feeling lonely, empty and frustrated.
As Wendy Wendy Behary points out in the book “Disarming the Narcissist: Survivng and Thriving with the Self-absorbed” says:
Because empathy allows you to deeply understand who the narcissist is and why he is that way, it’s the perfect antidote, fortifying you to stand your ground, hold him accountable, and no take responsibility for his issues. Best of all, you can show up in interactions with him without the burden of exhausting anger, defensiveness, or submission. You get him. You may even feel badly for him and might even tell him that, but you can do so without giving in and without giving up your rights.
The strategy of confrontational empathy also involves setting limits, establishing what she calls the rules of reciprocity and the need to use time-out procedures to cool down before engaging the narcissist. Read more details of these strategies in her self-help book.